“With Mary, our Mother, raised up as her son’s first disciple, and our model, we pledge to lift up one another and all who seek God.”
March 8, 2020, 10 AM
Since my area is so heavily Catholic, I decided to visit a smaller Catholic church to see if there might be a difference in my previous experiences. This one has the name, “Our Lady of…,” and their origins began in the early 1900’s when a young Italian immigrant woman wrote to Pope Pious X asking him to send an Italian Priest to meet the needs of the growing community. Her petition was granted and a new parish was established, exclusively for the Italian immigrants in the area. It is perhaps the only one that can claim a laywoman as its founder.
The sanctuary could hold 300 or so, but it looked to be a bout 1/3 full. A woman led what sounded like the Rosary prayer from the lectern. She kept repeating this verse in particular: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women; and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Then the congregation responded with words I couldn’t understand. They didn’t appear to be reading, so I assume they knew the words by heart. I would have liked to know what they were saying, but there didn’t seem to be a bulletin or anything in the pews to guide me.
The worship time began in earnest when we stood to sing the opening hymn and the priests made their way down the aisle, led by two altar girls, one carrying a large brass crucifix. One of the priests carried an oversized book, slightly lifted out in front of him. The small choir helped the singing from the back balcony, which felt a little like we were singing with angels.
Someone said a word of welcome and asked us to greet one another. Instead of standing, shaking hands or hugging, everyone remained seated. Although we were in the midst of the Coronavirus scare, I was still shocked when everyone just turned and nodded their head, saying “good morning,” or “hello.” It felt like we were taped to our seats and no-one dared move toward anyone else.
The service continued with a lovely time of confession, whereby we sang Psalm 51. It was a beautiful way to offer our confession, but I wish I had been directed to the words as it’s not something I’ve memorized. I tried to find the order of service in the pew book but came up empty handed. I imagine the familiarity is a comfort to those who practice Catholicism regularly. But to this visitor, it was disconcerting when I couldn’t follow along or tell where we were in the service.
The priest offered a short homily, about ten to fifteen minutes. It wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but more of an invitation to follow where God leads us, as was fitting for the scripture readings. My guess is that the sermon is not the highpoint of a Catholic mass.
When the offering baskets were passed down the pews, I liked that folks just handed them to the people in the next pew behind them. They didn’t bother sending it back to the ushers in the aisles–as that would have been an inefficient use of time. The Priests began preparing the eucharist during the offering, another efficiency, I thought.
The strangest thing happened while I sat in my back pew. I smelled a familiar odor. It was clearly the same smell as my devout Catholic grandmother’s house. I haven’t been to that home in probably forty years. My grandmother has been gone almost thirty years. Yet, if I closed my eyes, I could almost swear I was standing in her living room. It was the distinct smell of cedar and moth balls. Then, I began to wonder if there was some sort of Catholic “odor” which comes from certain incense or candles that are commonly used. But this service didn’t use any incense and the candles were pretty far away from me. I didn’t feel the presence of my grandmother or anything particularly spiritual. But the odor, which seemed to come and go, was absolutely the one I remember from childhood. I still don’t know what to make of it.
Anyway, I decided to go forward for communion again. I know some will find fault with this decision. But I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic faith and I understand the meaning of the Eucharist. This time, however, we did not receive the cup, only the bread.
When the service ended, I bent down to smell the pew cushion. It didn’t smell like anything in particular. I walked past the two priests, neither one greeted me. Someone handed me a bulletin, however, and it was filled with announcements, advertisements and an insert which explained why the Cup was not served. Due to Coronavirus, “the distribution of the Precious Blood…is suspended. …our faith informs us that the whole of Christ, that is His Body and Blood, is present when only the host is received.” I learned something new there.
Well, I cannot explain the mysterious odor. I can imagine, however, that maybe my devout Catholic grandmother was pleased to see me in the church she loved so much. However, no one else spoke to me and without any aids to help me understand and follow the worship service, this church FAILED the WELCOME TEST.